American Fly Fishing

By Will Rice

As the floatplane took off, headed for our pickup point some 7 miles downstream, Tom, the head guide, told us, “The sockeyes are dropping their eggs, so there will be plenty of trout in the river, but there are also going to be a lot of bears.”
   Turns out both of those predictions were conservative.
   We were headed to the Little Ku River, in the heart of Bristol Bay. It is a tributary of Kukaklek Lake, and like its more famous sister streams, Moraine Creek and Battle Creek, the Little Ku hosts a run of particularly large rainbows. Unlike those streams, though, it is too small to float, and it lacks the wide-open tundra that characterizes most of Moraine Creek. We had flown in from Rapids Camp Lodge, near King Salmon, but the Little Ku is a short flight from most of the lodges in Bristol Bay. Despite such ready access (by Alaska standards) and excellent fishing, the Little Ku is one of the least-visited streams in the area.
   Fishing the Little Ku requires a certain amount of stamina and a high level of comfort around bears. The stream is narrow and brushy, requiring an all-day walk from the pothole lake where we landed to the mouth of the stream. You can’t detour around the bears, and they are not going anywhere on their own, so the only option is to wade through the middle of them and trust them to move. At one point I counted 10 bears on the stretch of river in front of us, and we saw probably four times that many over the course of the day. With five of us fishing together, there was little chance of a bear becoming aggressive, and these bears are habituated to the occasional group of assertive anglers. We were told to stick close together and never back up from a bear. The first rule was a no-brainer, but when a 300-pound grizzly does a salmon-chasing belly flop right behind you, abiding by the second rule requires a lot more discipline.
   However, the fishing on the Little Ku more than makes up for the nerve-wracking number of bears. We caught about a dozen rainbows apiece, and most of them were in the 5-pound range—big, heavy-shouldered fish, without any of the lip scars from previous hookings that mark the trout in more heavily fished waters. 
   As on many Alaskan rivers, timing is everything. These are highly migratory trout, even by the standards of Bristol Bay. In the early season, they stack up near the mouth, feeding on the outgoing sockeye fry. The lower section of the river also provides good early- to midseason dry-fly fishing and nymphing. The best way to fish the lower end of the river is to land at the mouth and walk up a tundra ridge along the west side. You can also land on a small pothole lake a couple of miles upstream.
   By August, the trout have started to move upstream in anticipation of the upcoming egg feast. The sockeyes in Bristol Bay streams stagger their spawning period—genetic protection against erupting volcanoes and other sudden disasters. The spawning period can vary by several weeks in rivers just a few miles apart. The trout are tuned into the timetable, following the salmon and moving from river to river. On the early September day we fished the Little Ku, the trout were already starting to drop back downstream. However, it would be at least a week before the first rainbows even showed up in Battle Creek, at the upper end of the lake. Some of them would be the same trout that we had fished over.
   The Little Ku, as evidenced by the lack of fishing pressure, is not on the agenda of most anglers visiting Bristol Bay. This was only my second trip in 30 years. But if the opportunity presents itself, and you don’t mind a day of high adrenaline, jump on it: fishing the Little Ku is an experience you won’t forget.ruisers in nearby Henrys Lake the next.


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